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  • Tackling The Textbook Giants, By Brian Berlardi

    Professor Noel Capon has something in common with his students: he thinks the price of textbooks has gotten out of hand. “It’s a serious social issue,” he says.

    Capon likens the landscape of the textbook industry to that of the airline industry in the 1950s and ’60s, describing it as a “cozy oligopoly” in which the different players “compete for authors and over the quality of the books but not on price.”

    To help ease the financial burden, Capon is allowing students to pay what they wish to use the online version of his text Managing Marketing in the 21st Century. The pay-what-you-wish model was made famous by the band Radiohead, who allowed customers to download their most recent album, In Rainbows, for what they thought it was worth. The print version of the text, which sells for $45, is priced about $100 less than its competitors.

    Capon hopes that the unconventional pricing strategy will cause the major textbook publishers — such as Pearson Education, McGraw-Hill and Cengage — to lower their prices. In this respect, he likens Wessex Press, which publishes Managing Marketing and which is owned and operated by Capon, to Southwest Airlines.

    “Thirty years ago, in came Southwest with a very efficient, low price model, offering a safe ride in a new aircraft but without all the frills,” Capon says. “Well, I’ve come in with a book that doesn’t have a lot of frills but which is very much to the point and which is a very serious marketing book.”

    Though Capon is unsure of how much revenue he’ll secure from the online version — he’s also donating 50 percent to college scholarship funds — he hopes that the new pricing model will give instructors cause to consider using his text.

    “It’s a way of getting my book into the hands of as many people as possible,” Capon says of the model. “The major barrier I’ve had to overcome is the reluctance of instructors to switch books. By taking the price of the online version to zero, instructors who weren’t interested at the old price are going to have to give my book a serious thought.”

    Capon hopes improving the book’s readership will benefit Columbia Business School, as well. “Columbia has arguably the world’s leading marketing division, but we’ve never been strong in the textbook area. I’m hoping that this move, if it’s successful, will strengthen the School’s position as having the world’s leading marketing division.”

    Capon’s colleagues are taking notice. Michael R. Czinkota, Ilkka A. Ronkainen and Michael H. Moffett, authors of Fundamentals of International Business, have published the new edition of their text with Wessex. While Capon “wouldn’t rule out” taking on similar projects in the future, he plans to remain focused on his day job, teaching at Columbia Business School and writing his own books.

    When asked about being referred to as the “Radiohead of textbook authors,” he only laughs. Capon, who hails from Southampton in southern England, says, “I’m fine with that. They’re British, after all.”